PARIS — Soon-to-be fifth-grader Lily Davis was eager to give tennis lessons a whirl after she was introduced to the sport in a roundabout way.

Then an opportunity arose for Davis to learn the game, when Paris’ recreation department started offering “Tennis in the Parks” this summer. The program is led by a United States Tennis Association’s (USTA)-approved coach.

Three groups of more than a half-a-dozen players in each session have been gathering at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School’s tennis courts for one-hour of instruction every Wednesday since July 7. Players receive and get to keep a new, age-appropriate racket, a ball and program T-shirt. The six-week course costs each participant $70.

“In third grade, I kind of did tennis,” Davis said. “We did tennis with a volleyball net. This summer, my mom found the (notice) online and she asked me, and I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds fun.’

“I like it because you have a lot of opportunities and chances, and it is also kind of based off luck because if you miss, you miss, and if you don’t miss, you don’t miss. It feels exciting.” 

Tennis was one of the sports that experienced the most growth during 2020, when more Americans took up additional hobbies during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the U.S. Tennis Association of New England, tennis participation increased 22% in the United States last year, and nearly 1 million people in New England picked up a racket.

Emily Desjardins, another soon-to-be fifth grader, said her mom “suggested” that she sign up for the hour-long lessons.

“My mom pushed me to do it. Well, she didn’t force me to,” Desjardins said. “She told me to do it. Yeah, I was pretty happy about it. I did want to do it.

“I just like being out on the court and playing tennis. I do like it because it is pretty fun. I can just run around … get exercise and stuff like that.”

Renee Wakefield sees the Tennis in the Parks program as an opportunity for her son, 6-year-old Brady, “to learn a new sport and get out some energy. 

“It is a new challenge. He is having to learn self-control and patience. I love the program. We have been very impressed with the leadership and the other kids. We are just appreciative of Paris Rec. for organizing these wonderful programs for kids in our community.”

CALLING THE SHOTS

The program leadership Wakefield referred to, comes from a patient and dedicated Marla Tanous — a University of Maine English major and an Oxford Hills top-12 graduate in 2020, who meticulously prepares for each lesson every Wednesday afternoon.

Tanous embraced the opportunity of sharing her love of tennis with children in her community.

“When I was younger, about 10 or so, we first moved over here,” she said. “My mom and stepdad started teaching me tennis — and I discovered I really, really loved it. We didn’t have a team in middle school, which was sad. So I got used to practicing on my own. 

“I discovered when I got to high school, there was team here, and I started playing with them. I quickly discovered it was something I really, really loved and actually pretty good at.”

Tanous jumped at the chance to “influence” and coach children as well as introduce tennis to them at an early age. 

“It wasn’t something I got to have growing up,” she said. “I like the (kids). They have a lot of energy. They like to run around. I like to have fun with them and help them understand the basics of tennis. … I want them to think of this as a fun experience.”

Tanous has been amazed at the strong turnout for the program, and she believes if the program becomes popular, it will give children something to look forward to every summer.

“We had every kid (needed) on the first day,” Tanous said. “We have seven or eight per group, which was more than I was expecting — which I think is really awesome that there is that many kids interested in playing a sport like this.”

Tanous was interviewed by Eric Driscoll, who is the Schools & Tennis in the Parks Manager for the U.S. Tennis Association of New England.

“From there, I had to take a safety course on how to train kids and precautions to take,” Tanous said. 

REACHING OUT

Oxford Hills science teacher and former tennis coach Walter Perry, who is also a South Paris resident, helped get the Tennis in the Parks program off the ground, according to Driscoll. 

“He was one of two original coaches for the program when we ran pilot programs in Portland and Manchester, New Hampshire, in 2018,” Driscoll said. “Walter now serves as the Committee Chair for Tennis in the Public Parks committee and is a resident … he helped connect me with the (former) recreation director (Abigail Earle) in Paris to get the program going, and also to our coach — Marla Tanous.”

Driscoll said the Tennis in the Parks program opens up opportunities for young athletes who are curious about the sport.

“One of the really nice things is we are trying to engage people who would like to coach tennis that have interest and a skill set, but they don’t have the tools,” Driscoll said.

The U.S. Tennis Association of New England offers training for new coaches. 

Driscoll said his organization is focused on exposing tennis to children who normally might not have an opportunity to see what the sport is like — and that’s where rec programs come in to spread the word.

“I think it is just an opportunity to learn. Let them know that tennis is something they can do in their community,” he said.

Perry enlisted Tanous, a former of Oxford Hills player of his, to coach the Wednesday sessions.

“I think (the program) is a win-win for the town, for the coach and kids,” Perry said. “I think it is just a value to the coach. Marla is a college student and is getting some job experience and getting a summer paycheck. 

“As far as the kids go in town — here we are coming out of the pandemic — I think it is a great way for kids to get active, and we have beautiful tennis courts at the high school, and just utilizing them as much as we can, it just generates some revenue for the town.” 


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